April 3, 2013

“The enduring emptiness of our technology debates has one main cause, and his name is Tim O’Reilly.”


The latest issue of The Baffler contains an article by Evgeny Morozov, “The Meme Hustler“, on Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media, which goes a long way in tracing the potentially dangerous semantics of the movements that are currently playing out in tech and tech journalism.

Those of you outside this particular hive-mind may not have come across O’Reilly previously; but he has had a finger, through his wildly popular site O’Reilly Media, books, and conferences, in defining a great deal of the dominant language and concepts of our internet landscape, from “Web 2.0” to “open source.”

As Morozov says,

No one has done more to turn important debates about technology—debates that used to be about rights, ethics, and politics—into kumbaya celebrations of the entrepreneurial spirit while making it seem as if the language of economics was, in fact, the only reasonable way to talk about the subject. As O’Reilly discovered a long time ago, memes are for losers; the real money is in epistemes.

The article is worth reading in its 16,000 word entirety. Morozov delves deep into the apparent co-option of words we thought we knew, which were once were about freedom and rights, but that have somehow been recast “in the seemingly natural language of economics, innovation, and efficiency.”

The slow creep of this particularly technocratic flavor by “open source” activists, who when it suits them use the language of morality and public good for their purposes, has managed to equate freedom and openness with the freedom of the entrepreneur and the openness of the internet for their business purposes, rather than for the public good, Morozov alleges. In fact now, “the art of promoting openness is not to make it a moral crusade, but rather to highlight the competitive advantages of openness.”

As the Aaron Swartz case made clear, the “openess” of knowledge on the internet is one of the vital political issues of our time. Morozov shows that the language and agenda that is currently attached to these issues may not have the goals we expect them to have.

Once a term like “open source” entered our vocabulary, one could recast the whole public policy calculus in very different terms, so that instead of discussing the public interest, we are discussing the interests of individual software developers, while claiming that this is a discussion about “innovation” and “progress,” not “accountability” or “security.”

Of course, O’Reilly and his friends would say that they never obscured their guiding ethos. Nevertheless, the phrase and attending viewpoint of “open source” has had an outsize and unexamined influence over the past few decades on our democracy, market, and technology. Their business-minded end game, which might come as a surprise to some tech activists, is being obscured by the overwhelmingly Randian ethos of Silicon Valley.

And of course, using the language of “openness” as signifying openness for tech corporations, suits those that like business-as-usual. Which is exactly why the government has been busy recasting the death of SOPA last year as resulting from the successful lobbying influence of Google and others, rather the grassroots campaign that was actually responsible.

Evgeny Morozov’s essay should be the opening salvo in this particular culture war. The occasional geniuses of Silicon Valley are no longer outsiders, and they shouldn’t so easily be able to co-opt the language of centuries of political activism and more nuanced thought in the name of Angry Birds.


Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.